Jesus and Atheism
There is an old joke about the man in the Belfast street, who, on pronouncing himself an atheist, was asked: “Yes, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?” (Robertson, Engaging with Atheists, p. 19)
Today we are thinking about Jesus and atheism. Christianity has shaped the culture, values, traditions and systems of our society from education to welfare and from health to justice, so it is not surprising that some sincerely do identify as both Christian and atheist. One Scottish writer described himself as a Presbyterian atheist. He believed there was no God, but was always looking over his shoulder to see if he was there! (p. 106).
The heart of our faith is not culture or tradition. It is not the church or morals. The heart of our faith is Christ. He is the one who walked this earth and demonstrated God’s love. He is the one who loves us, and we walk with day by day. He is the one who has made his home in us (John 14:23).
When talking to atheists it is important to listen, to ask sincere questions, to think and to speak in defence by giving a reason for your hope (1 Peter 3:15b). But Peter, in his letter to the scattered and persecuted church tells them first “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” (1 Peter 3:15a). In your inner self—your will, your emotions, your thinking—treat Jesus as holy, honour him as master. Live for his glory. It is from this relationship and this attitude that we need to speak. It is the polar opposite of the “Protestant atheist”.
Honouring Jesus changes our goal. Our aim is not to win an argument. And we know that we can’t convert anyone, only God does that. Our aim is to relate, with gentleness, in a way that honours the person made in God’s image. Our aim is to give a defence that will honour Jesus. Our aim is to speak without aggression or defensiveness, so we keep a clear conscience to honour Jesus our Lord. And when we get it wrong, it is our aim to ask for his gracious pardon all over again.